The new Bartleby – “It’s a policy”.

Since you are all erudite and well-read, Gentle Readers, I know you are familiar with Melville’s story “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Shall I risk insulting the sensibities of the intelligensia amongst you with a recap and a quote? I shall, of course, as I am unable to restrain my English Professor self.

So, in “Bartleby,” Melville has this narrator who claims to be a very busy and important lawyer, but his employees are all hilariously bad – there’s Turkey, who only works until lunch, when he gets drunk, and his counterpart, Nippers, who is a martyr to indigestion, and thus never does anything useful in the morning. These guys are dreadful enough, but then the lawyer hires Bartleby, who makes them look like paragons.

At first, Bartleby is an apparently productive employee, but then his boss makes the fatal mistake of asking him to produce some work quickly – this is a lawyer’s office, in the days before photocopiers, after all.

In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating
what it was I wanted him to do–namely, to examine a small paper with
me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving
from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I
would prefer not to.”

Bartleby’s preferring not to escalates, as he passively refuses more and more things; he prefers not to work, but when he is fired he prefers not to leave the premises. He never says no, just states his preference, in a monument to what I suppose post-modern sensibility would call passive-aggression. His refusals are all the more powerful for being unstated.

The story is full of subtle irony and humour, which I found pleasantly surprising when I read it, my experience wading through Moby Dick as an undergraduate not leaving me with high expectations for Melville’s readability. The bit where the lawyer is confronted by the new tenant after he moves office to get away from Bartleby is laugh out loud funny, in a restrained 19th century way. If you need to refresh your memory of it (hur), those angels of e-text at Project Gutenberg have it available.

Today’s tale arises from the Bartelby-esque (or perhaps Bartlebian) behaviour of that monolith of higher education, the unnamed beaurocrats who invent stupid-ass rules which are placed under the umbrella term “policy”. It also leads me to the conclusion that if I had been in Melville’s story, I would have punched the original Bartleby in the face.

Here, then, is the scenario. Our Department, in its wisdom, has generated, at the expense of hours of faulty committee time arguing over comma placement, and the nature of the examples, and Roberts Rules of Order, a number of documents, which we might call academic policies, procedures and standards. Two of these documents explain in detail what our expectations are with regard to written expression and citation, others are generic descriptions that apply to specific courses. All well and good. I admire these documents, especially since I know how much effort it took to produce them.

Up until now, these documents were distributed to students in what we might, I suppose, describe as the “old fashioned” medium of print on paper, although it wasn’t handwritten by recalicitrant clerks, but rather mass-produced by that technological wonder, the photocopier. Ah, but then someone noticed that photocopying and distributing umpteen thousand copies of a handout every semester was costing quite a lot of money. Not to mention the trees. So, it was decided that we would distribute these items to students “electronically,” which sounds not only economic, but technology-forward. Like we were hip, cutting edge and internets-savvy.

This would be all very well, except 90% of my colleagues are about as internets-savvy as a stale donut. And then there’s the issue of what, exactly, electronic distribution means. Pointing students to a web site that has these documents on it? Well, that might work. How about the library? Well, that’s a possibility, except that a) the library website is  a dog to navigate, and it is programmed by illiterate monkeys who will, naturally, when you give them 2 documents to link, link Document A with text entitled “Document B” and vice versa.

What about Blackboard, then? Don’t get me started. Or the Departmental website? I mean, we have this web space on the institution’s site, and it looks all official, and even says “English Department.” What better place to put  documents outlining rules and expectations for students in order to make them look official and enforceable?

Gentle Reader, your naive optimism makes me laugh. For as long as I can remember, which okay, is pretty much 2 years in the case of Faculty Meetings, on account of the mind-numbingness of them, this action has been suggested. No one disagrees with the idea in principle. Yes, we have a site. Yes, official departmental documents would seem to be the kind of thing that ought to go on the site. Can we do that then? Eventually.

Yesterday, at a meeting in which all of this was rehashed yet again, it fell to me to be the person to make the request to Bartleby, who in this case is represented by our Associate Head of Department. The Committee, said I, has asked me, in light of the fact that we are not printing these handouts anymore, and in light of the fact that the ones on the library website are FUBAR, to ask if we can have them on our website. It is a job of as much as 10 minutes, and in view of that, I am even volunteering my own precious time to accomplish this Herculean task. Point me, I said, in the direction of a password, and all shall be accomplished.

You know what happened. I encountered Bartleby, who now hides behind “policy” to express his preference, but the passive resistance is exactly the same.

There are plans, to put this information on the site, “eventually,” but there are problems, at a policy level, with the “content management system”. Moreover, while Faculty may determine what content is put on the site, it is against policy to allow faculty access to the site. Implementation is tightly controlled, although, obviously, the implementers don’t have any control over content, because that has to be determined by faculty, through a process which is shrouded in mystery.

It’s astounding, and frustrating, and naturally one’s first reaction is to fly into the kind of rage that is expressed by profanity and foaming at the mouth, but the genius of Bartleby, as Melville points out, is that none of this has any effect.

“I prefer not to,” he replied in a flute-like tone. It seemed to me that while I had been addressing him, he carefully revolved every statement that I made; fully comprehended the meaning; could not gainsay the irresistible conclusion; but, at the same time, some paramount consideration prevailed with him to reply as he did.
“You are decided, then, not to comply with my request—a request made according to common usage and common sense?”
He briefly gave me to understand that on that point my judgment was sound. Yes: his decision was irreversible.

Like the lawyer in the story, then, I am stymied. No effort on my part will make Bartleby so much as dream of admitting that 2 years is an unconscionable amount of time to wait for a task that can be completed in 10 minutes. I will resort to working around the problem because in the face of his preferences, common sense and I are powerless.

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5 thoughts on “The new Bartleby – “It’s a policy”.

  1. Brigid

    I really didn’t like that story, because what the hell. How do you take a job and then not do any work? Just be a passive aggressive dick? I wanted to punch Bartleby in the throat.

    Also, when I was touring colleges, at one of the super expensive highly ranked colleges I looked at let prospective students sit in on classes so they know what to expect. The class was doing Bartleby the Scribner. The professor instructed everyone that the reason B wasn’t doing any work was because… wait for it… he was illiterate! And ashamed of it! And didn’t want anyone to know!

    This despite the fact that his previous job, which he’d had for YEARS, had involved being able to read and write.

    Reply
  2. Brigid

    I was flabbergasted at that interpretation. Even if they HAD come through with enough scholarship money for me, I probably wouldn’t have gone there solely because of that.

    Anyway, from talking with friends of mine in academic and bureaucratic jobs, I am totally not surprised that they are unwilling/able to do such a simple seeming task.

    Reply
  3. Adrienne

    I have been in a similar situation in my department… luckily, my chair saw that I honestly was willing to update our website and put in the paperwork for me to be trained in the content management system. In the end it was 2 days of work on my part, 2 months of badgering my colleagues for pictures and office hours to put up, and 3 months of waiting for the CMS people to “approve” of what I had done and publish it. Which they did, once they found it… apparently, it got lost in the shuffle.

    Sigh.

    But still, better than your situation, it sounds like. I agree with your intention to find a work-around – maybe get to know whoever does put up content on your site and have a chat with them.

    Reply
  4. Ann

    And the moral of that story:

    When asked to sit on endlessly mind-numbing policy-drafting committees, any sensible person ought to reply “I prefer not to.”

    Reply

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